Did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned, and why are people linking this to Donald Trump?

10 March 2020, 11:39 | Updated: 10 March 2020, 12:51

“Nero fiddles while Rome burns”
“Nero fiddles while Rome burns”. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

“Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” the saying goes. But why are people linking an ancient legend to a meme of Donald Trump playing the violin?

On Sunday, White House social media director Dan Scavino tweeted a meme of US President Donald Trump playing the violin with his eyes closed, with the caption: “My next piece is called nothing can stop what’s coming”.

Trump later retweeted the meme, adding: “Who knows what this means, but it sounds good to me!”

In the hours since, people have been weighing in on the meme, likening it to artwork of the Roman emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned (see above).

“Nero” started trending on Twitter early on Monday morning, as people linked the ancient legend to President Trump’s reaction to coronavirus, which has seen 546 confirmed cases and 22 deaths in the United States.

The US President has been criticised for inaccurately claiming that a vaccine will be available soon, that there are tests available for every American who needs one, and that the virus will be killed off by the Spring weather.

Read more: Politicians playing musical instruments, ranked from worst to best >

But did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned?

“Nero fiddles while Rome burns” has become a phrase used to criticise someone who is doing something trivial or irresponsible in the face of an emergency. Nero was blamed for ignoring a serious matter, and neglecting his people while they suffered.

In the summer of AD 64, Rome was devastated by a huge fire that lasted six days. Half the city’s population was made homeless and the blaze destroyed 70 per cent of the buildings. The Romans wanted someone to blame, and they looked to their already despised Emperor.

The notion that Nero “fiddled” while Rome burned is unlikely to be true – firstly, because violins were invented 1,500 years after Rome was devastated.

Read more: Who made the world’s first violin? >

However, Nero had a great passion for music and enjoyed playing the cithara – a stringed instrument like a lyre (see below) which was perhaps, over time, replaced by the more universally recognised word ‘fiddle’.

Emperor Nero was a gifted cithara player
Emperor Nero was a gifted cithara player. Picture: Getty

A second theory says the story may have nothing at all to do with music – being, rather, a metaphor for Nero’s inability to deal with a crisis. ‘Fiddling’, as well as playing the violin, can also mean procrastinating or messing around with trivial matters in the face of an emergency.

Read more: The ‘Shame Flute’ was used to punish bad musicians in the Middle Ages >

Surprisingly, Nero’s devotion to music wasn’t seen as a particularly positive thing.

The emperor was criticised by ancient authors of being an “actor-emperor”, saying his passion for the arts exceeded what was acceptable for a Roman of his social standing.